We Lost a Lot More Than William Friedkin Yesterday

A way of making movies, and thinking about movies, is vanishing

It’s been a long summer.  We lost Alan Arkin in June, Bo Goldman in July, and William Friedkin yesterday, who died at age 87.  It’s not only the collective sense of loss of great artists leaving us, but with this generation, a reminder of the singular era of cinema they helped define, the New Hollywood.   Like the French New Wave, the Weimar Silent Era, or Hong Kong 90s, New Hollywood was a time and place that can’t be recaptured or recreated, because what defined it was the equally unique lived experience of its artists.  

William Friedkin’s generation saw the Great Depression, World War II, and the atomic bomb drops that turned the Depression-battered, isolationist nation of their childhoods into the world’s wealthiest superpower.  To be sure, they did not all agree on what it all meant.  Many, arguably most, happily embraced the Eisenhower 50s, prosperity, and conformism as the Silent Generation.  In the late 1960s, Nixon called the more conservative of their number “the Silent Majority.” 

Friedkin was emblematic of a subsection of them that could not forget what they lived through and never lost a skepticism for the fresh coat of paint and paved suburban streets that replaced it.  The New Hollywood created an answer to that Silent Generation.  When you hear people complain about Hollywood talking too much about politics at the Oscars, feel free to blame (or credit) New Hollywood.  When people complain that Hollywood hates America (that is, that it points out any inequality, racism, sexism, or bigotry whatsoever), or asks, “What’s wrong with happy endings?” – feel free to blame New Hollywood.

The Fondas, Nicholson, Gould, Burstyn, Chayevsky, Altman, Beatty, Ashby, Coppola, Mazursky–you know all the names, and lots more, but Friedkin had a need to strip the varnish and shine away like no one else.  When he got to Hollywood in the late 1960s, the cineastes lionized golden age auteurs like Hawks, Ford, and Hitchcock.  In 1975, Friedkin went to Fritz Lang for a documentary career interview.  Instead of asking the usual how did you get your start stuff or why he placed a camera where he placed it, Friedkin’s first question out of the box:  What was Lang’s meeting with Joseph Goebbels like when Goebbels asked Lang to be the official filmmaker of the Nazi party?  “It’s a long story,” Lang sighed.  “I hope so!” said Friedkin.  Friedkin wanted that lived experience of Lang’s, not the nostalgia.

During that New Hollywood period, Friedkin directed three films in a row that put him at the center of that era:  The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), and Sorcerer (1977).  The French Connection remains New Hollywood’s most visceral and charmless response to the Silent Generation.  It’s about two street level New York narcotics detectives, Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider’s Jimmy “Cloudy” Russo, who mainly harass Black folks in Brooklyn bars for dime bags and small vials of pills a living.  When they stumble onto a lead to a top French drug cartel kingpin, it looks like a classic detective story where the case goes all the way to the top, etc.  But in Friedkin’s take on that worn out cliche, the blue-collar cops blow it, and in the worst way possible.  

The French Connection’s New York may be most stylistically ugly view of the city ever put on film, and it’s no accident.  There’s lots of New Yorks in 1970s movies:  Woody Allen’s, Scorsese’s, Coppola’s, Lumet’s – but The French Connection’s cinematographer Owen Roizman, and his camera operator, Cuban documentary filmmaker Enrique Bravo, utterly deromanticize NYC.  Not being a New Yorker, Friedkin felt no special need to include scenes of Popeye Doyle meeting an informant under the Brooklyn Bridge or feature the Statue of Liberty prominently in the background while a heroin deal goes down.  

Instead, Friedkin brings a Chicagoan’s eye to the city, so his Big Apple is a rusted, burnt out, chipped concrete, leaky pipe, vacant lot New York.  There’s no allure, nothing sexy, you don’t want to get on a bus and move there, it’s an ad for every other city in America.  A documentary filmmaker before he was a studio filmmaker, Friedkin urged his camera crew to allow rough edges and shaky hand-held work for the deceptive feel of documentary – but don’t be fooled, The French Connection is the work of artists, not journalists.  

The two biggest cop films of 1971 remain The French Connection and Dirty Harry.  Friedkin made Popeye Doyle a violent racist goon who gets in way over his head chasing down Fernando Rey’s French drug kingpin, and he loses him.  Friedkin’s movie came out in October, and Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel released Dirty Harry on Christmas Eve.  Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is also a violent, racist goon, but he’s the hero.  Loosely inspired by real life SF detective Dave Toschi and his hunt for the Zodiac, Dirty Harry is a right-wing fantasy in which Harry blows a Zodiac-like psycho away in the end.  Of course, the SFPD never came close to doing that.

Friedkin takes Popeye Doyle to the worst possible ending, where he not only lets his drug kingpin slip through his fingers, but accidentally shoots and kills another cop – and not the first he’s killed.  The French Connection went on to sweep the Oscars, winning Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Cinematography, and Best Picture.  Dirty Harry went on to a stunning box office return and four sequels and quotable catchphrases, because the illusions that Friedkin despised always had more appeal.

Friedkin had a genius for making us look at ugly.  It’s not that he won’t let us look away, he shoots it so well we don’t want to look away.  Not from his Brooklyn in The French Connection, the horrifying, blotched, peeling skin and vomit hurling Linda Blair of the The Exorcist, or the grime and constant sweat-soaked existence of South America in Sorcerer.   It’s so essential to his films that when fans realized that Disney, the current owner of The French Connection, had censored a scene in which Popeye Doyle uses a racist slur in all streaming editions of the film, the price for an uncut blu-ray of The French Connection skyrocketed to $161.00.  Removing the open racism from Popeye Doyle reduces him to just a cliché movie cop who doesn’t play by the rules, just another Dirty Harry. 

French Connection


When Friedkin released Sorcerer, a box office disappointment, it ran in the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. for about three weeks before they pulled it.  A Friedkin masterpiece, they quickly tossed it aside for a new kids film, Star Wars (1977).  The ascension of the boomers, the kids who never knew the Depression and saw American prosperity and world dominance as a given, had arrived.  “What happened with Star Wars was like when McDonald’s got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared. Now we’re in a period of devolution. Everything has gone backward toward a big sucking hole,” Friedkin once said.  

The shift was bigger than one film, of course, it was a whole culture ridding itself of Watergate and Vietnam and, as Reagan would soon put it, wanted it to be “morning in America again” – but Friedkin wasn’t wrong.

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Ben Schwartz

Ben Schwartz has written for Billy Crystal, David Letterman, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

One thought on “We Lost a Lot More Than William Friedkin Yesterday

  • August 10, 2023 at 2:30 pm

    Well put, sir. I saw “The French Connection” at the theater with my parents when I was on the verge of adulthood, but still too young to catch all the nuances. Nonetheless I was riveted. That chase scene, holy hell on wheels. And that tiny “buh-bye” wave from the subway still sticks with me today, lo these many decades. It’s a rare movie scene that sticks like that. A sad loss.


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